Monday, November 30, 2020

A Life for a Life: Antigone

Nahéma Ricci and Rachida Oussaada in Antigone (2019).

In 1944, occupied Paris saw the premiere of Jean Anouilh’s adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone, which in Anouilh’s hands became a Resistance play, a not-so-coded critique of Nazi authority. The broad conflicting moral worldviews of the Greek tragedy were sharpened into personal either/or dilemmas, and by ending on a purely subjective justification, the adaptation got itself inducted into the (quite extraordinary) existentialist dramatic canon. It was made into a cinematically inert TV film in 1974 directed by Stellio Lorenzi and starring Marie-Hélène Breillat as Antigone. Now, thanks to Québécois writer-director-cinematographer Sophie Deraspe (she also co-edited with Geoffrey Boulangé), we finally have the film that Anouilh deserves.

Sophocles’ play tells of how, after Antigone’s brothers Eteokles and Polynikes die in the siege of Thebes, King Kreon buries the former for defending Thebes, but refuses to do the same for Polynikes as he led the siege and thus condemns him to eternal unrest. Antigone tries to bury him but is caught, setting off a confrontation between family and state, moral law and written law, and many other binaries, depending on which scholar you read. The film’s credits give more credit to Sophocles and Bertolt Brecht than to Anouilh, but Deraspe has said that she read Anouilh’s version even before Sophocles’, and it shows in the dialogue’s dialectical crackle and pop.

In this updated version, Antigone Hipponome (Nahéma Ricci) is the youngest of her family of Algerian refugees in Montreal, along with sister Ismène (Nour Belkhiria), second brother Polynice (Rawad El-Zein), oldest brother Étéocle (Hakim Brahimi), and their grandmother (Rachida Oussaada), who speaks Arabic. The killing of her parents is a major reason they left Kabylia in the first place. It’s a neat sidestepping of the (literal) Oedipal triangle that produces the three children in the myth, and one example of the film’s excellence at fitting mythic plot points into a realist context.

In Sophocles’ text Kreon glorifies one of the brothers, but Anouilh has Créon admit to Antigone that he couldn’t tell the corpses apart and just buried the more complete one, as a means of derailing Antigone’s quest. Deraspe goes a step further in tarnishing the brothers, making both of them gang members, and handing the Créon role to a police interrogator (Benoît Gouin). In lieu of a siege, the police mistakenly and fatally shoot Étéocle as they’re arresting Polynice for violating parole. The gunshot is purposefully loud (foley recorded and mixed by Benoit Leduc). Polynice doesn’t die; he’s charged with assaulting an officer, though we viewers don’t see that “assault.” Since none of the Hipponomes are citizens, conviction means deportation to what the grandmother calls “a living hell.”

Polynice’s plight is brought home to us in a moving funeral for Étéocle, which Polynice attends under armed guard, set to Nate Husser’s “Catherine,” a cri de coeur rap about the tumult of life on the streets.

Everyone agrees that his actions are understandable given the circumstances, but there’s nothing they can do. So Antigone hatches a plan. She gets decals of Polynice’s gang tattoos, cuts her hair to his length, dons a wig, and joins her grandmother on a jail visit. As a guard has his back turned, she trades places with Polynice – not forever, just long enough for Ismène, waiting outside, to smuggle him off somewhere. It works, and when Antigone is discovered, the escapade sets off an online firestorm that allows the film to display an energetic and coherent montage sequence consisting of internet content, including cellphone videos of Étéocle’s death, TikToks, GIFs, Instagram posts, meme’d photos, thinkpieces, hot takes, and even chat-room flame wars. It’s the first time I have ever felt that the experience of internet culture was being accurately conveyed in film (sorry, Searching, 2018).

Antigone tries to plead guilty at her arraignment, but she’s a minor, so the judge mandates a lawyer over Antigone’s protests. Thankfully, that lawyer is sympathetic, and his strategy is an extrajudicial one: foment social protest (the protestors are apparently the film’s Chorus). Their coordinator on the outside is a young man named Hémon (Antoine DesRochers), son of a local politician (Paul Doucet). In Sophocles, he’s Kreon’s son and Antigone’s fiancé. Here, he’s her classmate and boyfriend, and their meet-cute would be completely ridiculous if not for the decadent beauty of DesRochers’s Raphaelite blond hair and puppy-love demeanor, reinforced by Ricci’s utter conviction in every scene she’s in. (In a later one, Antigone is too weak to walk unassisted, yet Ricci somehow manages to convince us that she can climb over a chain-link fence.)

Awaiting sentencing, Antigone is sent to a girls’ reform school, where she stands up for victims of bullying by both other girls and the staff. Both here and in Anouilh’s play, Antigone needs to manifest such a systemic scope of concern to counterbalance the narrowing of the plot’s morality as compared to Sophocles’. Ricci has a Kristen Stewart-like intensity that explodes in confrontation scenes, and when it does, we can feel the atmosphere of the room change, even through the mediating layer of the screen.

In all three versions of the story, Antigone’s efforts are rendered essentially meaningless. Sophocles has the people of Thebes turn on her when she seems unable to compromise, and as the Chorus is the moral barometer of the play, this undermines her moral stance. Anouilh has Créon inform Antigone that both Étéocle and Polynice were wannabe parricides gunning for the crown, and this deprives her moral stance of its grounding in family. But Deraspe has the most devious twist: Polynice is caught, not in some far-flung hole in the ground, but at a nearby bar, drunk and high. Added to this stick is a carrot: the judge dangles citizenship in front of Antigone. This is the film’s only misstep, as we never see Antigone prepping for a citizenship exam, and so for the life of me I can’t see how the judge would grant her citizenship in any case. It’s of course logical that she’d want it, which makes the dilemma so painful, but in terms of the film’s emotional throughline, it feels out of left field. In any case, this double whammy does give Antigone a mental breakdown in which she rages against the barbarity underlying the Francophone veneer of civilization, accomplishing in five minutes what Synonyms needed 123 to do.

This brings us to the most ingenious scene of this adaptation. After her breakdown, a psychiatrist (Lise Castonguay) comes to evaluate her. She’s elderly, blind, and named Theresa, and she says some very unsettling things, all within the film’s realist framework.

Ultimately, Polynice is going to be deported, and their grandmother willingly goes with him. Taking another leaf from Anouilh’s stage play, Ismène wants nothing to do with the whole lot of them, banking instead on her small business to grant her “a normal life.” This brings the film back to its original query: is Antigone’s life her family’s or her own? And if it’s her own, who would she be without her family? On its own this is a perfectly valid question with, as we have seen, a storied lineage; but when juxtaposed with Hémon’s straightforward and unhesitating extralegal support of Antigone in the face of his father’s exasperated opposition, the fact that it’s the Arabic-fluent Algerian who’s caught in the dilemma carries with it a faint whiff of Orientalism.  But only just. The ambiguous ending reaffirms the fact that the film is entirely on Antigone’s side.

CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

No comments:

Post a Comment